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The Holy relic, St. Francis Xavier’s arm.

Sacred Mummified Arm Traverses Canada on a Holy Relic Road Show

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A highly-venerated sacred arm and hand once belonging to St. Francis Xavier is being displayed on Canadian soil for the first time ever, and Angèle Regnier, co-founder of Catholic Christian Outreach says, “It’s a big deal.” Almost 100,000 Canadians are expected to view the relic during its national tour which was evident when thousands lined up outside Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Toronto two weeks ago to catch a mere glimpse.

The Legacy of St. Francis Xavier

Known as the "Apostle of Japan” Xavier is considered by historians like Giuseppe De Rosa as “one of the greatest Catholic missionaries since Saint Paul.” (2006).  Having visited Goa, India, South East Asia and Japan, Xavier died in 1552 in China and his body was returned to India. His corpse didn’t decompose like it should have and this perceived “incorruptibility” was taken by Catholic church officials as being symbolic of his holiness. Sixty years after Xavier’s death the church removed his forearm and hand and displayed them at the Church of the Gesu in Rome, where he was canonized in 1622. Never since have Catholic historians mentioned the words “Chinese” and “embalmers” in the same sentence, cynics might say.

The limb has been touring Canada for a month. (Catholic Christian Outreach)

The limb has been touring Canada for a month. (Catholic Christian Outreach)

A Warm Welcome

Believers, however, are ecstatic that Xavier has come to town, “I consider him one of my friends," said Brian Cordeiro, the associate finance director of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal, reported CBC News Montreal, as the city prepared to receive the relic last weekend. Those of faith see the arrival of Xavier’s limb in Canada as a blinding act of compassion from Rome, while those of little faith would suggest all relics are, and always have been, a big money business! And they are not wrong! Get your calculator out for a second.

Reliquary with the relic of St. Francis Xavier, at its usual home at the Church of the Gesù, Rome, Italy.

Reliquary with the relic of St. Francis Xavier, at its usual home at the Church of the Gesù, Rome, Italy. (Public Domain)

Before hitting the midpoint of the tour in Toronto, the relic had already been seen by over “20,000 people in five cities and towns” according to the Globe and Mail, and after three days in Toronto it moved westwards to Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria before returning east to Montreal and finally its current appearance in Ottawa’s Notre-Dame Cathedral.

“The entire tour will cost $200,000,” said Ms. Regnier, as reported by The Globe and Mail, and was uncertain how the tour would be funded but added faithfully, "We're trusting that God will provide."

When one considers the fuel, food and transport costs of every pilgrim getting to the relic then adds the hard cash donations, it’s a lot! Now, think about the number of people employed in transporting, safeguarding and insuring every step of the relic. It really is a big operation, but project Xavier is a sure winner, for the “art of relics”, as I like to call it, was mastered by the church over 800 years ago.

St. Francis Xavier recovering his cross brought back by a crab. Chapel of St. Francis, Gesu, Rome.

St. Francis Xavier recovering his cross brought back by a crab. Chapel of St. Francis, Gesu, Rome. (CC BY 2.5)

The Place of Pilgrimage in History

A Christian pilgrimage is a journey of spiritual significance to a place where the birth or death of founders or saints occurred and where a person’s beliefs and faith are expressed in the physical relics of these saints which are displayed. Since the 11th century Kings and farmers alike traveled vast distances to see these divine devices which they believed “gave blessings directly from God himself,” commented Coleman and Elsner (1995). We are told in The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm that holy relics attracted pilgrims to Palestine and Rome and the millions of “religious tourists needed to be fed, housed” bringing new economy into abbeys, churches, and towns en route.

Medieval pilgrims in “The Pilgrimage of Grace”, 1536.

Medieval pilgrims in “The Pilgrimage of Grace”, 1536. (Public Domain)

Guardians and Profiteers

D’Arcy Murphy, a University of Ottawa student took the whole semester off school to become the Official Guardian of the Relic, which means he travels alongside it every day. Murphy says the experience has been “a real honor” reports CTV News Ottawa, but he has no idea that his role as “guardian of the sacred relic” is one from an industry with ancient origins.

In the middle ages, such noble volunteering of services certainly occurred. At the same time possessing, selling and guarding the bones of Christian martyrs caused a lucrative underground economy which supplied a growing demand for all things supernatural. Like with any big money trade, behind the theatrical presentation of relics, a highly-effective network of financial experts, logicians, transport specialists and insurance agents maximized the profits accumulated from their elaborate spiritual productions. One of histories most renowned relic traders was an 8th century Roman deacon named Deus-dona who along with his brothers Lunisus and Theodorus, ran a highly-profitable business raiding tombs along the “Via Appia and the Via Pinciana-Salaria and selling them to cathedrals beyond the Alps.”

St-Francis-Xavier (artist not stated).

St-Francis-Xavier (artist not stated). (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Real Deal

However, there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of Xavier’s arm and hand and this is precisely why I think it’s so special. Unlike almost all other relics this one has a proven pedigree from the 16th century, therefore, for those who care little about God it is a monument to a brave and bold historical figure who walked further than Alexander the Great. And to those who do maintain a relationship with God, this relic provides a direct connection with divinity which was perfectly expressed by Peter Bisson, the provincial superior for the Jesuits in English Canada, who claimed the relic provides “physical contact with people who have given themselves over to God.”

Top image: The Holy relic, St. Francis Xavier’s arm. (Image: Catholic Christian Outreach)

By Ashley Cowie


De Rosa, Giuseppe (2006).  Gesuiti (in Italian). Elledici. p. 148.

Coleman, Simon and John Elsner (1995), Pilgrimage: Past and Present in the World Religions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ekelund, Robert B., Tollison, Robert D., Gary M. Anderson, Gary M., Hebert, Robert F., and Davidson, Audrey B.,  Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm, Oxford University Press, 1996

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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